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U.S. may lose billions without visa-free visitors

The United States could lose billions of dollars if it sticks to an October deadline for 27 allies to roll out high-security passports — about half will miss the cutoff date, lawmakers and officials said Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

The United States could lose billions of dollars if it sticks to an October deadline for 27 allies to roll out high-security passports because about half will miss the cutoff date, lawmakers and officials said Thursday.

Elaine Dezenski, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, told a House hearing that only 14 of the mostly European countries that enjoy visa-free U.S. travel appeared ready to meet the deadline, already delayed by one year from October 2004.

She said the 13 that will miss the deadline made up about 80 percent of all visa waiver travelers — between 13 million and 15 million people a year who account for two-thirds of spending by overseas visitors.

Travelers from the visa waiver countries — which also include states such as Japan and Australia — may visit the United States for 90 days using only a passport.

According to current U.S. laws, all new passports issued by visa waiver countries after Oct. 26 must be machine-readable and contain a digital photograph.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, told the Judiciary subcommittee hearing that these visitors had spent $40 billion in 2002 alone, providing jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Tourism industry sources say the United States stands to lose $10 billion to $15 billion a year if visa waivers no longer apply.

Talk with their feet’
Dezenski, an acting assistant secretary for Homeland Security, said visitors might “simply talk with their feet and decide not to travel to Disney World (or) ... other locations because there are now one or two extra steps to go through to get the family here.”

She noted that even if the “biometric” passports were introduced on time, the United States would not have the machines available at all ports of entry to read them. She also said the United States’ own passports did not yet meet the standards required of visa waiver states.

Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, said the uncertainty surrounding the deadline is “really hurting us, and I don’t know what we’re gaining by not extending again.”

“I just want to indicate my willingness to push for another extension. ... We can’t expect others to do what we’re not prepared to do ourselves,” he said.

Terrorism concerns
But other Republican lawmakers, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, said they fear an extension could endanger the country.

“Zacarias Moussaoui ... came to the U.S. from France with a French passport under the visa waiver program,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement, referring to accused Sept. 11 conspirator Moussaoui, who is due to plead guilty Friday to all charges against him and admit to having a role in the 2001 attacks.

“The deadline is important to assure the public that we’re serious about border security, and about protecting against future terrorist attacks potentially launched from Europe,” said Rep. John Hostettler, a Republican from Indiana.